The new Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz brought a tough message from the royal house to his first meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House on April 11.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington quote Salman as saying: "If the US isn't willing to stop Assad and Tehran killing Syrian Sunnis, Saudi Arabia is left with no other option [than to intervene militarily].”
Saudi sources report that Obama left the prince’s words unanswered.
He must have realized that the number of Middle East nations gearing up for military action against Iran is getting longer and threatening to undo all his administration’s hard work on the strategy of applying doses of diplomacy as the cure-all for the region’s maladies.
With the Saudis, the list jumped to eight – five GCC members, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates as well as Jordan and Turkey, with Israel a possible ninth. The last ten days of May are worth watching.
(See the article about Israel’s plans for after the second round of talks with Iran on May 23.)
Synchronicity between the operations in Syria and Iran is on the cards: If and when Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites, Saudi Arabia and Turkey may decide to use the opportunity for an attack on Syria – and so pin down Syria and Hizballah on the Islamic Republic’s western front.
This would also suit Saudi Arabia which has a long reckoning with Tehran. But, on the other hand, they may go first.
Turkish and Saudi military chiefs line up against Syria
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh on April 13 was purely military in nature.
Welcomed at the airport by Prince Salman and Saudi military chiefs, he then sat down with Saudi King Abdullah to outline plans for coordinated invasions of Syria and the creation of security zones under cover of their air forces. Present too were Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, Director of Saudi General Intelligence and his top aides.
Taken next to the Riyadh Air Base, Erdogan met Saudi Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Crown Prince Nayef and was shown Saudi Air Force operational plans for a military expedition in Syria.
The Saudi officers assured the Turkish prime minister that their air force was fully capable of conducting air operations on a regional scale, having proved its mettle by leading the large-scale, lengthy Main Connection 2012 air drill from April 9-18, in which 200 US and GCC fighter-bombers as well as Egyptian, Pakistani and Jordanian warplanes, took part.
The exercise took place across a broad Gulf region, bounded by the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border and southern shores of Oman. Saudi commanders promised Erdogan that, after this exercise, they were fully capable of ruling the skies of southern and central Syria after flying in over Jordan. Their aerial surveillance was also up to gathering intelligence for the operation, although they admitted that the Saudi air force did not have electronic devices for jamming Syria’s air defenses and radar.
The Abu Musa threat of Iranian payback
The Saudi king and the princes Salman and Muqrin warned their Turkish visitor that they would be on their own when they attacked Syria. They must count out direct US military involvement against the Assad regime, but might be offered two kinds of American assistance: satellite-generated intelligence and an air force shield against Iranian reprisals against Saudi and Turkish military and oil targets.
Prince Salman emphasized the word “might.”
The prince noted as interesting the appearance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the Iranian-occupied Persian Gulf island of Abu Musa at the very moment that he, himself, sat down to talk to Obama at the White House.
Revolutionary Guardsmen based on the disputed island were dressed as civilians and waved little Iranian flags in honor of the visit, because Abu Musa has very few Iranian inhabitants. The entire performance was staged, according to Prince Muqrin, as a warning to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that an attack on Syria would bring forth direct Iranian payback from the heavily-armed Abu Musa military bases.
There was no question in Saudi and Turkish minds that the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's mission to Syria was foredoomed to failure. Since the first 30 UN observers mandated under that mission landed in Damascus on April 15 to secure a ceasefire, at least 50 civilians have died of Syrian military violence.
Invoking NATO back-up in Brussels
Before leaving, the Turkish prime minister and his Saudi hosts agreed to set up a joint military command center as soon as possible, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report.
Its task is to build the mechanisms for coordinating combined preparations for the broadest war operation the two partners have ever embarked on outside their respective borders.
Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman and Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz were named joint chiefs of the new command center. Three subsidiary headquarters are to coordinate air operations; manage the protected buffer zones the Saudi-GCC force and Turkey plan to mark out inside Syria; and keep intelligence-sharing on stream.
It was arranged between the two war partners that the diplomatic preparations for D-Day would begin on April 18 at the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels. Turkey would file a complaint against Syria for violating its border with cross-border gunfire at a refugee camp.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Defense minister Yilmaz would use this incident to invoke Section 5 of the NATO charter which authorizes the alliance to render military assistance to a member state coming under attack by a non-NATO member.
Ankara hopes by this step to obtain resources it lacks, especially in air defenses and get NATO forces deployed on the Turkish-Iranian border to fend of possible Iranian reprisals for the Turkish operation in Syria.
Since NATO's US-led missile defense system will be high on the Brussels agenda, the Turks will try and make progress on this item contingent on NATO back-up for their campaign in Syria.
The last ten days of May: pivotal calendar of events
The US-led Friends of Syria are meeting the next day, April 19, in Paris. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who led the first two events, will be there too.
It will be up to Davutoglu to persuade the meeting to pass a resolution mandating imminent foreign intervention to save the Syrian people.
Then, on May 20-21, the NATO Heads of State and Government hold a summit in Chicago. Turkish leaders will use this platform too to seek the bloc’s approval of assistance for defending their country against Syria and Iran.
It must be said however, that as Ankara approaches this tricky diplomatic obstacle course, its leaders appear to be preyed by second thoughts about direct military intervention in Syria, in contrast to the Saudis who remain rock solid.
Last minute: Late Thursday, April 19, pressure was building up on the Obama administration from Riyadh, Ankara and Paris, to join or provide direct support to strengthen the forthcoming coming Saudi-Turkish intervention in Syria.
The US president has hesitated until now for a number of reasons, one of them out of concern that active US intervention in Syria would cause the Iranians to bolt from its thus far fruitful secret negotiating track with the US. (See a separate article.)
The last ten days of May look like being critical for the next chapter of Middle East history – and not just for Syria, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources note.
Two days after NATO’s Chicago summit, the second round of Six Power-Iran nuclear talks are due to take place in Baghdad.
Depending on their outcome, Israel’s diplomatic-security cabinet – or full-dress cabinet – goes into the fateful process of decision-making on a possible unilateral military operation to pre-empt a nuclear Iran.